Friday, June 21, 2013

Duncan The Magnificent

Duncan, our 26-year-old Wedge-tailed eagle, recently came out of retirement to wow audiences at WBS’s educational bird shows at Stone Zoo near Boston, MA.

Meet Duncan, WBS's Wedge-tailed Eagle
The last time this bird flew in our education programs was in 1994. This summer she is back and flying at our zoo program at Stone Zoo in Boston, MA, and doing quite well. At first I was unsure of how this would go, but I was very excited to have this opportunity to, basically, retrain this bird.

Training birds, and any animal I would assume, is very challenging. The first thing that we have to figure out is the “working weight” of the bird. The working weight is the weight we keep them at during their flying season (6 months of flying 6 months off), and this is a weight at which they’re food motivated (in other words, a weight at which they want food, but they’re not starving). The working weight is heavier than they would be naturally in the wild, but lighter than they would be if they were offered as much food as they wanted without working for it. In order to find that magic number it takes observation. Too light and your bird gets aggressive, too heavy and your bird won’t fly. Once you find this magic number you then have to do a lot of practicing and getting the bird back in shape because just like us, birds also get out of shape. We usually take about a month and a half to two months to get all the birds back in shape.

Photo courtesy of Alex Navarro, Educational Specialist, Stone Zoo
Once that training period has gone by its then time for shows to start.  This is when you learn even more about your bird. You have to get them used to seeing people in the theater, because during show practice time you practice in an empty theater. If the bird is new to flying for an audience you have to slowly build up from just a few people to more and larger crowds. You quickly learn all the strange things that individual birds may not like.  I’ve worked with birds that don’t like the strangest things, like big necklaces or strollers, or crutches. A very few don’t like sunglasses, perhaps because they can see themselves in them—or that’s what we think at least.

Photo courtesy of Alex Navarro, Educational Specialist, Stone Zoo
After learning the quirks of individual birds and doing our best to keep that object away from them, you then have to regularly deal with uncontrollable factors, like wind.  Very windy conditions may sometimes blow a free flying bird off course, but with the right flight muscle conditioning (in other words, lots of practice), our birds fly very well when the wind is blowing.

Photo courtesy of Alex Navarro, Educational Specialist, Stone Zoo
After taking all these factors into consideration, and even if you do everything right, sometimes the unexpected still happens--they are live animals after all.  Most times, though, things work out perfectly, and you get what I would imagine to be a “proud parent” moment the first time your bird does the exact behavior you’ve been training. Then, when the behavior you’re asking of your bird becomes consistent, that is one of the best feelings a trainer can have.

Photo courtesy of Alex Navarro, Educational Specialist, Stone Zoo
All of this is what my staff and I have dealt with while getting Duncan back into the swing of things.  And finally, after tons of practice and hard work, she is doing very well and flying for all our audiences at Stone Zoo. We are all very proud of this magnificent bird.

Submitted by Jaimie Sansoucie, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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